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Travel Notes: The Cheapest Way to See Australia

When I decided to visit Australia a few months ago, I knew that getting to see a large portion of the country was going to be difficult. Australia is about the same size as the continental United States in land area and having lived in the US for 28 years and only scratching the surface of the country, I knew that traveling around Australia was not going to be easy.

Putting aside the sheer size of Australia, the other issue I worried about was the cost. My research told me that Australia was going to be at least, if not more, expensive than the United States and one of the primary reasons I haven’t explored more of the US is because it’s so damn expensive.

While getting to the country itself is quite an expense, once you’re here traveling around doesn’t need to cost a fortune.

For the past week, I've been on the train in Australia, hopping from one long-distance train to another as I make my way from the northern city of Darwin down through the center to Adelaide, then across to Sydney, then up to Brisbane, and finally all the way up to Cairns, a total traveled distance of 6,883km / 4,277mi.

While one certainly needs to get used to sleeping in recliner chairs, showering in small bathrooms, and sitting next to strangers (that is unless you dish out more money for the higher class sleeper rooms), this mode of travel is incredibly rewarding if your intention is to actually see the Australian landscape.

You’ll wake up to sunrises and watch sunsets from your seat, see endless sheep and cattle, and even catch a glimpse of a few kangaroos and emus. It’s like your own Australian safari, except when the train stops at its destination you can get out and explore even more.

In the United States, train travel is quite expensive. A one-way, 2,400km/1,500mi journey will cost you at least $250 USD. (On the other hand, the same journey by air will only cost you $90 USD; air travel has been heavily subsidized by the US Government, so it’s a lot cheaper.)

Now compare that to the cost my recent one-week train journey here in Australia, which will be ending in just a few hours. The travel itself only cost me $58 for the entire week. That’s $58 for traveling 6,883km / 4,277mi!

For less than it costs to take a train from Boston to New York, I’m traveling across the Australian continent not once, but twice.

This isn’t to say the cost of living in Australia is cheap. It’s not. In fact, the past few months have taught me that living here is actually more expensive than living in the US (especially the cost of food; however hotels, air travel, and apartments are about the same price).

So how is travel by train so cheap here? Well, there’s a catch. If you don’t have a non-Australian passport, travel by train is almost as expensive as the United States. However, if you do have a non-Australian passport, you can purchase one of several different a rail passes.

The most expensive pass, the Ausrail Pass, will give you unlimited travel on all of Australia’s long-distance trains for 3 to 6 months, costing you $750 or $950 respectively.

I did the math on what the journey this week actually cost me and it came to just $58 (my $750 3-month Ausrail Pass, divided by 90 days, times 7 days = $58).

By the end of my travels here in Australia, I estimate that I will have traveled roughly 21,000km/13,000mi by train, bringing the total cost per mile down to about $0.04/km ($0.06/mi). That’s about the same cost per mile as traveling by train in India!

So there you have it. If you’re thinking of visiting Australia for a few weeks and you want to get around the country cheaply, definitely consider picking up one of their rail passes.

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